NEEDED: A LARGER LOOK

THE INTERSTATE COMMERCE COMMISSION next week will receive for reconsideration a major railroad merger far different from the one it rejected last July. Although the changes should solve many of the problems that led to last summer's rejection, final approval could create redundancies in the current system that must be re-examined.

We are referring, of course, to the proposed combination of the Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe and the Southern Pacific Railroads into a single 25,000-mile system, which would blanket much of the Midwest and Southwest.The proposal generated controversy originally when it came before the agency because of allegations that it would prove too anti-competitive to justify approval. As a result, the commission turned down the transaction, although it gave the two rails time to come up with agreements aimed at dealing with most - if not all - of the objections.

SFSP, the holding company that owns the two roads, has been able to do this first by agreeing to give the Denver & Rio Grande Western more than 2,000 miles of trackage rights in the central corridor and second by agreeing to give the Union Pacific 1,400 miles of trackage in the southern corridor.

The two agreements should go a long way toward dealing with most of the competitive issues, which inevitably result from putting together two mostly overlapping rail systems. As a matter of fact, the Rio Grande received far more than it originally requested while the UP obtained essentially what it wanted the commission to give it as a condition to the merger.

That hasn't satisfied the UP. It has objected to portions of the Rio Grande agreement. We wonder, though, if it is serious. UP already has asked ICC approval of its application to acquire the Missouri-Kansas-Texas Railroad. In addition, a formal application allowing it to purchase Overnite Express, a less-than-truckload motor carrier, is expected to be filed shortly. These transactions come on the heels of the UP's acquisition of the Missouri Pacific and Western Pacific Railroads, steps that significantly changed the balance of power within the industry.

If UP is perceived as too greedy, the perception could create far greater problems for it - in terms of possible antitrust action - than would the merger of two financially shaky competitors.

ICC approval of a Santa Fe Southern Pacific merger also would require a new and careful look at the competitive rebalancing the agency required in earlier mergers of western lines. For example, trackage rights the Santa Fe and SP each received as a condition of the UP-MoPac merger will be less valuable if the UP's access into the Southwest is increased significantly.

The competitive impact on regional carriers such as the Kansas City Southern also must be addressed. This, in addition to that of UP's impending takeover of the Missouri-Kansas-Texas Railroad.

These moves taken together amount to a major restructuring of the industry west of the Mississippi. Unfortunately, they appear to be handled on a case- by-case basis without consideration for the long-term impact. By contrast, what is needed is a comprehensive look at the aggregate effect of these decisions.

We feel the agency should move swiftly to approve the Santa Fe-Southern Pacific merger, now that the chief anti-competitive objections have been answered. But we feel also that whatever steps it takes should be done in the context of a larger, overall framework.

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